ANAMOSA — Two things drew me to Anamosa on a gorgeous September morn.
First, I’d never witnessed U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley completing a fabled “full Grassley,” his annual pledge to visit all 99 Iowa counties each year he’s in office. Thursday morning’s town hall meeting at the Jones County Courthouse marked his 99th stop this year.
Second, I’d never seen Grassley facing “the race of his life,” legging out the home stretch of a re-election campaign he’s not expected to win by his usual 20 points. A smattering of polls show his Democratic challenger, former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, is close enough to make things interesting.
It turns out a “full Grassley” is completed with precious little fanfare. No trumpets. No ticker tape. No gilded “99” trophy presented to the lucky town. There was a poster board modestly heralding stop No. 99. Grassley had to move it to make room for a burgeoning crowd jamming an Art Deco courtroom. Kids from Midland High School filled the jury box.
A few Democrats gathered outside to insist this “full Grassley” is really a “fake Grassley,” because the senator hasn’t held an open, town hall-style meeting in Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and other metro areas in several years. He’s opted instead for private gatherings in those large Democrat-leaning counties, a strategy Iowa State Education Association President Tammy Wawro and state Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, insisted allows him to duck questions from potentially less friendly audiences.
It’s a fair criticism. And it might even be an effective punch if Judge were holding open, public town hall campaign events. So far, she hasn’t done that, opting instead for private gatherings with mainly friendly Democratic audiences. She’s a candidate, not a senator, but still.
Also, oddly, Wawro and Finkenauer didn’t even stick around for Grassley’s meeting.
Too bad. They would have seen a largely friendly audience asking the senator a variety of questions. They also might have noticed that guy supposedly running for his political life doesn’t seem to be breaking a sweat. And this is the real Grassley, not a cardboard cutout.
Grassley’s first question came from Kathy Ulrich, a Linn County Democrat. She asked him to explain remarks he made recently in Sioux City indicating he’s open to holding confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland after the election, if his fellow senators demand it.
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The notion of a lame-duck confirmation flies in the face of Grassley’s long insistence that only the next president can pick a nominee to fill a vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The voice of the people must be heard, the Judiciary Committee chair has insisted repeatedly.
“Somebody asked me to speculate. I think it was at the Sioux City Rotary Club,” Grassley said. “And I probably should not speculate, because it’s so far in the future. So my position has not changed.”
“The new president should make the appointment,” he told reporters later.
“Justice for All Men,” reads a sign high above the courtroom. But Grassley’s the man who decides who gets a Judiciary Committee hearing.
So our senator will continue to hold the seat open, and deny even so much as a hearing for a well-regarded, moderate nominee, with hopes President Donald Trump will fill it with a “strict constructionist.” Grassley seems certain his party’s erratic egomaniac, who changes his positions as often as he changes his Chinese-made Trump neckties, surely will stick to the SCOTUS script. Why?
“Because he’s put out a list of 11 people that are strict constructionists…,” Grassley said during a gaggle with reporters after the meeting.
But what if he doesn’t stick to the list? Grassley ignores my question.
“And that’s who he said he’s going to appoint. And so they fall into the category of people, one of them I know very personally would be a very good Supreme Court justice. And three or four more that I know by reputation,” Grassley said. The one he knows personally is Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Steven Colloton of Des Moines.
Never mind that vastly longer list of times Trump has waffled, flipped, veered and stunned.
But will Grassley pay a political price? Most town hall attendees who brought up the Supreme Court did so mainly to praise Grassley for “sticking to his guns.”
“Concerned Women for America want to thank you for your stance on the Supreme Court,” said Janae Stracke, wearing a “Stand with Grassley” sticker and representing a group that seeks “to protect and promote biblical values among all citizens.” Her praise drew a round of applause.
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“I think a lot of people think this about the next four years and the election, but in the case of the Supreme Court, it’s about the direction of the court for the next 40 years,” Grassley said.
So he’s voting for a guy who doesn’t know how many articles are in the Constitution, thinks courts sign “bills” and says a judge’s ethnic heritage should disqualify him from presiding over a case. But hey, he has a terrific list.
Aside from the courts, Grassley fielded questions on a several other subjects, from Pentagon spending to the failure to bring criminal charges against “a lady running for the highest office.” No one exclaimed “Lock her up!” even with a prison right next door.
One guy asked the senator about Congress’ failure to approve funding to fight the Zika virus. Grassley blamed Democrats. The guy pointed out Republicans loaded the bill with stuff Democrats don’t like.
“Here’s something that everybody in Washington has to make up their mind to,” Grassley said. “Is Zika enough of a problem that you’re going to overlook some of the issues that you might not always agree with? It takes compromise to get a bill passed.”
Moments later, Jon Curtis, an Army combat veteran from Anamosa who said he suffers from PTSD, asked Grassley why he’s helped bottle up legislation that would allow greater access to medical marijuana.
“Why do I have to become a criminal to get the medicine I need?” he asked.
Grassley said he supports expanding access to cannabis oil. But he insists the bill includes provisions he can’t support, such as a change in laws governing drug money laundering.
“So you shouldn’t be mixing a banking law with a bill about medical marijuana,” Grassley said.
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I seem to recall a wise man once said, in Washington, if a problem is big enough, you’ve got to overlook some issues you might not agree with. It takes compromise to get a bill passed. So wise.
From the school kids came questions about the future. One asked about Grassley’s thoughts on electric cars. Another wondered what he plans to do about climate change.
“I am the father of the wind energy tax credit,” said Grassley, who also expressed support for solar, nuclear and energy conservation.
After an hour, Father Wind’s schedule forced him to breeze onward. He told reporters, despite Democratic criticism, he has no intention of changing the way he does a “full Grassley.” He’ll hold an array of events in Iowa counties, hoping people show up so he can meet as many as he can.
“Like horses, you can bring them to the trough but you can’t make them drink. I want to encourage as much of that drinking as I can. And this is the way I do it,” Grassley said. “And I’m the first one in the history of Iowa to do it, after my re-election.”
And odds are he’ll get six more years. Unless voters surprise us, and change his itinerary.
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